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Tribune: Dumbing down the ISAT

    Chicago Tribune
    October 4, 2007


    Dumbing down the ISAT

    Are the kids doing all right? A study to be issued Thursday by researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests we have no idea.

    "The Proficiency Illusion" bolsters the contention that many states bob and weave their way around strict school-testing standards -- and Illinois is one of the worst offenders.

    A quick primer: A student is determined to be proficient in a subject when he reaches or exceeds the "cut score" on a standardized test. Illinois tests have some of the lowest "cut scores" in the nation, particularly in math, the study finds.

    What does that mean? Parents may think their 8th grader is doing just fine in math because she has a passing score on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). But, compared with 8th graders around the country, she may be a victim instead of a victor.

    Some states are lowering their testing standards to avoid the tough sanctions of No Child Left Behind, the federal education reform law. By lowering the standards, states are creating the illusion that more students are succeeding.

    Here's an example of a typical question an Illinois 4th grader would have to answer correctly to reach the cut score for proficiency:

    "Marissa has 3 pieces of candy. Mark gives her some more candy. Now she has 8 pieces of candy. Marissa wants to know how many pieces of candy Mark gave her."

    The possible answers:

      a. 3 + 8 = ?
      b. 3 + ? = 8
      c. ? x 3 = 8
      d. 8 + ? = 3
      e. ? - 3 = 8

    Now here's an example of a typical question a Massachusetts 4th grader has to answer correctly to reach proficiency.

    "The rocket car was already going 190 miles per hour when the timer started his watch. How fast, in miles per hour, was the rocket car going seven minutes later if it increased its speed by 15 miles per hour every minute?"

    The possible answers:

      a. 205
      b. 295
      c. 900
      d. 1330
      e. 2850

    Big difference in difficulty.

    The federal government has spent some $108 billion on No Child Left Behind, including $4 billion in Illinois. Not surprisingly, many states have assured their citizens that they've made plenty of progress in that time. Example: ISAT statistics suggest that Illinois students have made significant leaps in the last five years. In 2001, just 62 percent of students passed the 3 rd -grade reading test; that share rose to nearly 71 percent in 2006. 8 th grade reading proficiency soared to 78 percent last year from 50 percent in 2001.

    But do those scores mean anything? Or is some of that "proficiency" just an illusion meant to placate voters, legislators, parents -- and kids, who rely on state standards to assure them a good education?

    The No Child law is up for renewal this year. This study provides another argument for why lawmakers need to resist the attempts by schools and states to find new ways around the original intent of the law.

    Last year state education officials made several changes to the ISAT, the most significant of which was to lower the passing score on the 8th Grade math test. You have to wonder, based on this report, if the questions have quietly been dumbed down too. As sure as 3 plus 5 equals 8, that cheats taxpayers. Worse, it cheats kids.

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